As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa (May 2010)

            In the Italian language, the doubling of a consonant actually prolongs the pronunciation of that consonant. So, unlike English, where the word Brunello would be pronounced “Broon” “L” “O,” in Italian it is “Broon-ELLLLLL-O.” As such, I believe that my high school American History teacher must have studied Italian. After I made one of my humorous-but-unsolicited comments in class, she momentarily ignored the rest of the students, looked at me, paused, and said, “Sssssmartassss.”

            Not “Smartass,” but “Sssssmartassss.” Something about the extended hiss at the beginning and end emphasized that she simply had no other words for me. Where some might have viewed this as an insult, I was rather proud to have earned such a public distinction by offering commentary that was hopefully as clever and entertaining as it was totally unnecessary and approaching the borderline of appropriateness.

            A word to the wise-ass: such commentary should be as amusing to the instructor as it is to the students. I learned this Life Lesson in the 4th or 5th grade when Miss Crooks pulled two of us out for a talking-to about that day’s sugar-fed antics. The teacher’s face was stern when she said to my friend, “You, I am very mad at.” Then she turned to me. And I smiled. A big, toothy, pre-braces, overbitten smile. She struggled not to smile back, then uttered the words that echo in my head even now: “You I would be mad at if you didn’t do such funny things.” Oh, Miss Crooks, Miss Crooks. You never should have said that out loud. I experienced a feeling akin, I imagine, to that of a caveman who has just learned to make fire. Though I would not have put it in these words as a 4th/5th grader, it boils down to what I now call the Crooks Corollary of Classroom Conduct: The likelihood of punishment is inversely proportional to the degree to which the teacher thinks what you did was funny.

                        P = -----


            In a very special episode of “I Was a Pre-Teen Smartass,” I was at a fellow 8th-grader’s house for dinner with her family when her sister and her mom began chanting silly sayings. One was, “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.” I don’t remember the other, but it was similarly planetary and grammatically incorrect in nature. My subsequent outburst of, “Boys go to Venus to get bigger…,” followed by a knowing, dramatic pause, at the dinner table, as a guest in someone’s home, suggests that my filter was still in its developmental stages. More importantly, I learned that the Crooks Corollary does not apply to friends’ parents.

            What of substitute teachers? I had never concerned myself with them before, but one day a situation built itself around me, and, for good or ill, I chose to run with it. One morning during my freshman year of high school, I had a substitute for Western Civilization class. Mrs. Jones was really more of a chaperone, as there was a reading assignment rather than content to teach. As my friend Danny was seated in front of me and blocking my view of the assignment on the board, as I had just come from Spanish class, and as he was a fellow Spanish scholar, I asked him in Spanish if he would give me the page numbers of the assignment. He replied in kind. Blame Danny for sullying this beautiful linguistic exchange by then saying to the sub, “She speaks only Spanish. I’m her translator.”

            Now, honestly, I thought this woman would have to be a moron to believe that. So, since it would be harmless fun, I played along, attempting an accent, pretending to be an exchange student, expecting it to end any second with Mrs. Jones saying, “OK, ha ha. Now get to the reading.” Instead, after a minute or so, she leaned in and asked, “You don’t really speak only Spanish, do you?” I turned to my friend Beth, who calmly translated her question into Spanish.

            Oh, it was beautiful. Yes, it was also horrible of us, and I’m a little sorry about it now, but you have to admit that was impressive. We deserved academic credit from the Drama Club director for this impromptu, ensemble performance. In short, she bought it, the poor woman. Unfortunately for us both, after 30 minutes of silent reading, I forgot all about my need for a translator and joined a conversation with some students across the room. Then I paused, remembering. Something about the way she stared at me, eyes narrowed to blurry charcoal slits; something about the way she crossed her arms, veins bulging through her sweater; something about the way the smoke from her ears hung in the air after she turned and left the room suggested that Mrs. Jones was not amused.

            Though I had a mouth that sometimes – nay, frequently – got me not-so-pleasant looks from authority figures, even I knew that there were some things you just didn’t do. Back in middle school, after watching a non-kid-friendly stand-up comedy routine by George Carlin on cable one night, I found myself sharing the best bits with my gym class compatriots the next day. One part had to do with how men greet one another. Rather than “Hello,” Carlin preferred the more congenial, “How’s your hammer hangin’?” He added that, when greeting the Pope, one should instead use the more formal, “How hangs the hammer?”

            Soon after, we were scurrying about during the precious minutes before attendance when I heard the approach of quick, squeaky footsteps. I turned to see my friend Tara, doubled over laughing, tears streaming down her face. She sounded like a large, shivering dog.

            “What?” I asked.

            Tara managed to utter one, high-pitched stream of words before collapsing. She said, “Mr. Carpenter said ‘Hi Jeannie!’ Jeannie said, ‘How’s your hangin’ hammer?’!”

            Jeannie was sent to the Principal’s office.

            Back to Life Lessons: 1) When you hear someone telling naughty jokes she’d heard the night before on cable, do notrepeat them to the teacher. 2) In the event that you disobey #1 and opt to take your chances, remember the Crooks Corollary and make sure you can tell the friggin joke right. Otherwise, please, just leave it to the professionals.

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